Catalogue description Papers of William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, 4th Earl Fitzwilliam (1748-1833)

This record is held by Sheffield City Archives

Details of WWM/F
Reference: WWM/F
Title: Papers of William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, 4th Earl Fitzwilliam (1748-1833)

The correspondence properly begins in July 1782 with Fitzwilliam's succeeding to Wentworth Woodhouse and the estates of his uncle, Charles, 2nd Marquis of Rockingham.


The letters prior to July 1782 really consist of items belonging to the Rockingham correspondence, some correspondence of Anne, Countess Fitzwilliam (the Earl's mother), and some addressed to Lady Charlotte Ponsonby (subsequently the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam's wife and some to the Earl himself as a young man.


The correspondence July 1782-March 1807 covers the period from Fitzwilliam's accession to the Wentworth estates until the coming of age (in May) of his son, Lord Milton. This period includes all the occasions when Fitzwilliam held, or was likely to hold, government office, viz. proposed Commissioner for India (1783), Lord President of the Council of 1794 and 1806, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland 1794-95. Lord Grenville's Ministry went out of office in March 1807.


The correspondence April 1807-February 1833 covers the period from the time of Lord Milton's coming of age and election to Parliament, when he played an increasingly important part in Fitzwilliam family affairs. Although, as a married man with a growing family, he did not live with his parents, the connection between them was close. On occasions when Earl Fitzwilliam was ill Lord Milton corresponded with the stewards on his father's behalf. (See WWM/G). During the last two years of his life Fitzwilliam practically ceased to conduct his affairs and his place was taken by his son. Fitzwilliam died on 8 February 1833


Note that not every item in some series of letters, where the content is purely routine, has been included in the detailed listing

Date: 1748-1833
Related material:

The correspondence here is not all that survives, for a great deal remained at the Earl's Northamptonshire house, Milton Park. This is now at the Northamptonshire Record office. The actual location of the letters depended by and large on where the Earl was living when he received them and is haphazard from the archival point of view

Held by: Sheffield City Archives, not available at The National Archives
Copies held at:

These papers are available on microfilm at Sheffield Archives (ref: WWM Microfilms 33-59)

Language: English
Restrictions on use:

The Fitzwilliam correspondence has been guarded and bound and it is, in general, not possible to supply photocopies of letters


Microfilm copies can be supplied; if required, reading copies can be made from the film at an additional charge

Access conditions:

The original documents are not normally issued, access is to microfilm copies in the first instance

Unpublished finding aids:

The calendaring has occupied a lengthy period and is the work of several hands. The content of individual entries does, therefore, vary more than it could be wished, and there is perhaps too great an emphasis on the local and estate matters. Entries are intended as a guide to content and not as a substitute for reading the original letters

Administrative / biographical background:



The letters and papers of William Wentworth Fitzwilliam, Earl Fitzwilliam (2nd Earl in the peerage of England and 4th in the peerage of Ireland) came to Sheffield Central Library from Wentworth Woodhouse in 1948, tied up in bundles and docketed in the Earl's hand, practically as he had left them at his death in 1833. Some of them do not seem ever to have been taken out of the leather dispatch boxes after he had replaced them there


In this they are in complete contrast to the Strafford, Rockingham and Burke papers in the Wentworth archives, for all of these had been re-arranged, to a greater or lesser extent, by editors preparing them for publication before they came to Sheffield. Selections from the correspondence of all three had appeared in print by the mid-nineteenth century or earlier. Fitzwilliam, on the other hand, has had no editor and no biographer


This fact is not altogether surprising, for Fitzwilliam, despite his long life, his place among the Whig aristocracy, his great estates and wealth, his dominating position in Yorkshire, his friendship with leading Whig politicians, failed to hold any office of state except for brief periods or to hold a position of leadership in opposition. In this he is the opposite of the 3rd Duke of Portland (with whom in many respects he might be compared), who was almost continuously in office from 1794 - 1809 and for several periods before this date


Yet Fitzwilliam's long career touched national, and more particularly, local political life at many points during a period of many changes, and his large correspondence reflects this wide spectrum. There is more, it is true, about county elections in Yorkshire and Wicklow, about the Court of Sewers, Yorkshire magistrates or coal, tar and pottery on the Wentworth estates, than about high politics - except for the few unfortunate months when Fitzwilliam was Ld. Lieutenant of Ireland in 1794-5. But he had Fox, Burke and other politicians among his friends and correspondents. He knew the Prince of Wales intimately and to him in their difficulties (financial and other) turned such varied people as the Duke of Kent, Mrs Fox, the Princess of Wales and James Hare


Fitzwilliam was born in 1748 and died in 1833, aged 84. He was the son of the 1st and 3rd Earl Fitzwilliam and Anne Watson-Wentworth, eldest daughter of the 1st Marquis of Rockingham. He succeeded to the peerage in 1756 at the age of eight and thus (like his uncle the 2nd Marquis of Rockingham) was never able to sit in the House of Commons. Though not a wealthy peer, Fitzwilliam made the usual grand tour, and both abroad and in London was a particular friend of Charles James Fox and moved in the most fashionable Whig society. He was, however, of a reserved, sensitive and rather serious disposition


He was heir presumptive, from his childhood, to his uncle the 2nd Marquis of Rockingham and to all his great estates. Rockingham died childless in 1782 when Fitzwilliam was just 34 and for the next 50 years he was the Lord of the extensive Rockingham estates in Yorkshire and Ireland and very wealthy


Rockingham died in office as Prime Minister. The Whig alliance which he had held uneasily together by his political management, fell apart and the remnants of the Rockingham Whigs subsequently formed the coalition of Fox and North. A general election was looming in 1783-4. Fitzwilliam had succeeded not only to Rockingham's estates but to his potential influence and patronage in Yorkshire and the election almost immediately put to the test whether the Rockingham 'interest' would mean very much without Rockingham. The Foxite Whigs suffered heavy losses and Fitzwilliam handled the Yorkshire elections in the county and the boroughs where he had influence with great ineptitude. Management of men which had been Rockingham's great political asset was clearly lacking in his nephew. On a personal level, while Rockingham's easy manner had won support among the Yorkshire gentry and borough freemen, Fitzwilliam appeared stiff and withdrawn. As time went on, he gained in experience and confidence, his undoubtedly good qualities became more widely recognised and the influence due to his great wealth re asserted itself in Yorkshire. But Fitzwilliam remained all his life an aristocrat of the old style, despite some genuinely liberal principles. He never learned how to deal with the mercantile population of Hull and his greatest fiasco was the 1807 election in his own close borough of Malton with its rising commercial elements


The further divisions among the Whigs which resulted from the impact of the French Revolution, the break between Fox and Burke, the activities of the constitutional societies and the tentative moves of the Portland Whigs to join Pitt's administration, all appear in the correspondence. Fitzwilliam's political outlook and instincts alligned him with Burke and Portland but his heart was Fox's. Though by the end of 1793 Fitzwilliam had agreed to give general support to the Government, he was apathetic when Portland was negotiating for a junction with the Pitt administration in the early summer of 1794 and begging Fitzwilliam to come to London. On July 11th however, Fitzwilliam became Lord President of the Council and by the middle of August had agreed to accept the Lord Lieutenancy of Ireland, though the appointment was not formally made until December


Fitzwilliam kept the correspondence relating to his Irish Lieutenancy with care. The vast mass of it deals with patronage matters, mainly appointments on his own household staff. From the political point of view, several points stand out. The situation in Ireland was a crucial one, for the substantial concessions promised to the Roman Catholics in 1791 had only very partially materialised and the French were threatening to take advantage of the widespread opposition to the Government. The main stumbling block to reform was the junta of officials at Dublin Castle, of whom John Beresford and the Lord Chancellor Fitzgibbon were regarded as the chief. Nevertheless, there seems to have been very little discussion between Fitzwilliam and Pitt about the situation before the former departed to Dublin. The only conclusion stated in Fitzwilliam's notes of the discussion reads: 'Roman Catholic [emancipation] not to be brought forward by Govt. that the discussion of the propriety may be left open'. Fitzwilliam made no secret of his belief in 'men, not measures', and that he intended to replace Beresford, etc. by friends of Grattan, but nothing positive was agreed with Pitt on the subject. Pitt treated him throughout with coldness, if not contempt


Fitzwilliam was showered with Catholic addresses on his arrival in Dublin. Though he at first expressed the hope that he could defer the raising of the Catholic question in the Irish Parliament, a week later (15 Jan. 1795) he was pressing the Govt. to grant emancipation without delay. At the same time he dismissed Beresford


No communication of any sort was dispatched by Portland (who handled the Irish correspondence for the Government) between 14th January and 2nd February, and then only on the subject of patronage. During these crucial weeks Fitzwilliam was left entirely without cabinet guidance. Apart from a Letter from S. Hamilton to Grenville, which the latter sent to Fitzwilliam, nothing naturally can be learned from Fitzwilliam's correspondence as to what went on behind the scenes in London. The dismissals, however, clearly caused more real concern to Pitt even than the emancipation question, though it was officially over the latter that Fitzwilliam was recalled (21 February, 1795)


He caused some embarrassment to the Government by prolonging the time before he quitted his office. He came home isolated and hurt. He broke with Portland, even Burke was not wholly in sympathy and it was to Lady Rockingham that he seems to have poured out his heart. He published a long justification of his conduct addressed to his old friend the Earl of Carlisle and almost fought a dual with Beresford


Fitzwilliam, as a great Irish landlord, continued to be concerned with the island's fate, and the subsequent correspondence contains a good deal about the rebellion of 1798, particularly in Wicklow county


Early in 1798, in spite of his general opposition to the government, he accepted the position of Lord Lieutenant of the West Riding, an office which seems to have been a congenial one, despite its military duties during the invasion scare of 1803 and the working class reform agitation of the period; a good deal of correspondence relates to the latter


The extensive routine correspondence relating to militia and yeomanry matters at this time forms a separate archive and is not calendared here


In 1806, the Foxite whigs formed the shortlived 'Ministry of all the talents', Fitzwilliam becoming Lord President of the Council. In the reshuffle which followed Fox's death, Fitzwilliam agreed to vacate this office. Lord Grenville, the prime minister, offered to create him Marquis of Rockingham, which title he refused; Grenville subsequently offered him the Garter, but failed to get the King's approval before the ministry came to an end in March, 1807


Despite these disappointments, from about this time Fitzwilliam had cause for much personal satisfaction in the coming-of-age of his only son and heir Viscount Milton, and his subsequent Parliamentary career. Fitzwilliam had married in 1770 Charlotte Ponsonby, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Bessborough. She seems to have suffered a mis-carriage early in her married life and had no children until the birth of a son, Lord Milton, on May 4th, 1786, within a few days of the death of Fitzwilliam's only brother. Milton married his cousin Mary Dundas in July 1806 and their first child was born soon after Milton's election as M.P. for York county in May 1807, a victory which cost Fitzwilliam £98,614. Milton retained his seat until 1830 when the death of his wife and the likelihood of his soon succeeding to his father's peerage led to his declining to stand again. He was, however, elected for Northampton


Of Fitzwilliam's dearest political friends, Fox and W. B. Ponsonby died in 1806. [Fitzwilliam married Ponsonby's widow as his second wife in 1823.] In future, his political interests were concentrated in Milton's career. Milton's name was mentioned as a possible leader of the opposition in 1817, on George Ponsonby's death. He was an opponent of the Corn Laws and, in 1830, a keen supporter of Parliamentary reform. At the time the Whigs at last came to power in 1830, Milton had partly retired from political life and he never held government office. His permanent and complete withdrawal is not really explained in the letters


Lord Milton's correspondence overlaps Fitzwilliam's to a great extent. A separate 'archive' of the administrative business of the Yorkshire elections (particularly 1807), running to many boxes, is not included here; much of it is routine, but there are some interesting letters among it


A very great part of Fitzwilliam's correspondence deals with estate business. In this he was methodical and painstaking. Rockingham had left the estate in considerable disorder but Fitzwilliam, ably assisted by his various stewards, managed it in a careful manner. Much of this improvement was due to Charles Bowns, who was manager of the Wentworth estates and general auditor, from the death of his uncle Richard Fenton in 1788. In Ireland, he was well served by William Wainwright, appointed to the stewardship by Rockingham just before his death, after the unsatisfactory term of office of Hugh Wentworth. The assiduous William Hastings at Malton was a less happy choice as far as Fitzwilliam's borough interest was concerned; in this connection the less-businesslike Prestons, who preceded him, were more acceptable to the burgesses. The many letters dealing purely with routine estate matters have not been calendared. Fitzwilliam's Northampton estates do not figure very largely in the correspondence here


Fitzwilliam inherited with the Rockingham estates some difficult family connections, in particular the family of his aunt, Lady Harriet Watson Wentworth, who had married her footman, William Sturgeon, and had a large family. Between the eldest son and the Rockingham estates there was only the single life of Lord Milton. Other, more distant, connections were D'arcy Wentworth who had emigrated to Australia, and Sir John Wentworth the American loyalist, who was appointed Governor of Nova Scotia. Both figure in the correspondence

Have you found an error with this catalogue description?

Help with your research